West of the Pecos, Part IV

And now it was time for the long haul.

Arising in Carlsbad, where we'd had a decent but blindingly white meal (owing to overgenerous portions of melted cheese) at a local Mexican joint the night before, we piled into the Enclave and headed south. WAY south.

The straight shot across the state line into Texas on Rte. 285 would have been simplicity itself, except that we had to reset the clocks. Again. This was the sixth time we had adjusted our watches on this trip.
*We'd landed in Texas on Saturday and set our watches back an hour to Central Standard.
*That night, however, was the switch from Standard to Daylight time, so we had to move them ahead an hour.
*When we entered New Mexico on Sunday, we entered Mountain Daylight time and moved them back again.
*Just yesterday, on our hasty visit to McKittrick Canyon, we'd had to briefly switch to Central Daylight again to make sure we didn't get caught in the park.
*And then we went back to Mountain Daylight when we headed back to Carlsbad.

Needless to say, this shift to Central Daylight was accompanied by much whining and worrying about whether we were doing it right, and for a few seconds, I was actually setting my watch BACK an hour before I realized it had to be the other way around. I think.

By comparison, picking a route was simplicity itself. We took 285 to Pecos, where we faced a choice. We were lodging for the next two nights in Fort Stockton--not the town nearest to Big Bend National Park, no, but the nearest one with vacant hotel rooms. There are only two roads that lead into Big Bend; one runs from Alpine to the park's western entrance, the other from Fort Stockton through Marathon to the northern entrance. Reasoning that we'd be taking the Fort Stockton route at least three times in the next few days, we opted to take the trip from Pecos to Alpine on the way to the park.

It was a good choice. Pecos itself was not an especially lively burg, but our trip down Rte. 17 began taking us closer and closer to the Davis Mountains, where the overwhelming grey-brown flatness of the desert started taking on hints of green and signs of rolling hills. We also got to take the trip's first section of interstate highway, sending the car up to a 100% legal 80 mph for a few minutes before we exited in Balmorhea. The town was by far the lushest and most well-appointed we'd seen in many a mile, with bright flowers and freshly-painted homes, and it gave us a renewed sense of hope that we might see something beautiful or surprising in West Texas after all. The Davis Mountains themselves were generally low and largely treeless, but the road rolled through and around and over them, allowing us views of stark rock formations, small river valleys, and clusters of pinons here and there. We passed through the town of Fort Davis and decided that no matter how expensive the gas was, we'd better stop and get some. We were three hours from Carlsbad, and we had another two to go to reach Study Butte at the western entrance to the park.

We filled the tank and continued south through Alpine, a town which had the sort of cheery self-confidence a town can get when it knows it's the final outpost of civilization. Lying at about 4500 feet above sea level, with about six thousand people, it's not honestly mountainous, but it's the last town of any size that lies near Big Bend--assuming you consider eighty miles away "near." Basically, if you're planning on getting supplies before you venture into the park, this is your last chance. Before Alaska joined the union, Alpine had the distinction of being the largest town in the largest county (Brewster Co.) in the U.S. It's also a proud part of the western tradition of representing the local high school by painting or building a large capital letter on a nearby mountainside; Dad and I had seen plenty in Utah in 2008, but the big white A looming over Alpine was the first such letter we'd turned up in Texas.

And then, there we were, accelerating down Rte. 118 and waiting for Big Bend to roll up over the horizon. And waiting. And waiting. The terrain grew increasingly mountainous, and the foliage returned to its desert colors, but the vast (and mostly empty) road kept pushing ahead.

100_2727.JPGFinally, we came around a curve and discovered the entrance to Big Bend, rightly described as the most remote national park in the Lower 48. After such a lengthy drive--the five-plus hours were the longest straight stretch we'd attempted on this trip--we decided it was time to get out of the car and get touristy. Landscape photos of the Chisos Mountains, the small range that stands in the center of the park, and closeups of the local yuccas were our first priority:

100_2751.JPGYuccas were blooming everywhere, though the park ranger who halted our car reported that spring was running a bit late this year. We were also informed that the Chisos Mountain parking lot was filled to overflowing, so we'd have to wait to visit them. When I asked about a good birding spot for the afternoon hours, he didn't hesitate.

"Cottonwood Campground," he said. "Don't tell anybody."

I later learned that this last was a joke; Cottonwood is a legendary birding site, and for good reason. Our trip there took us backwards for a few miles, but then we turned off and began heading south into the heart of the park, toward the campground and the adjacent village of Castolon. The village itself is basically a cluster of small residences for the park employees and a visitors center with a store. We pulled in, bought a few snacks to take the place of lunch, and obtained a few items such as birding checklists and maps at the visitors center. There we learned that the village's name comes from Cerro Castellan, the prominent red mesa that sits just northeast of it, commanding the attention of anyone down near the river whether he's camping or not:

100_2792.JPGHere it looms behind the red flowers and thorny branches of the ocotillo plant, but it was an especially startling sight when contrasted with the brilliant green of the cottonwood trees that shaded the campground:

100_2769.JPGIt was the small orchard, however, the one just beyond the shower/toilet facilities at the right, that attracted my attention almost immediately upon our arrival. The reason for this was the presence of a small flock of reddish birds on the ground beneath them. Reddish, yes, and even crested, but they weren't Northern Cardinals; they were Pyrrhuloxias, a/k/a "Arizona Cardinals," grey, with washes of red on wings, tail, crest, and breast, and bearing a prominent, slightly crooked yellow beak. My Texas life bird was in hand before I even got out of the car.

The toilets weren't done, however. No sooner had I hopped out to confirm my lifer than I spotted another unfamiliar bird scratching at the dead leaves under the low trees: a Black-throated Sparrow. The place was crawling with lifers! And then--

Oh.  Oh my.

There are some birds that you can see in a book and know perfectly well, at least in terms of identifying them, much as there are some songs you can hear on your clock radio and identify later when they come on in the car. But when you're standing in a crowd, smelling beer and sweat, feeling electric, and waiting for something to happen, the sudden sound of the opening notes of that song can sound like something completely new--familiar and joyously welcome, yes, but startlingly vivid and entirely novel now that you're there in its presence. I felt that when I stood in the rain at Kenan Stadium in 1983 and watched a young band from Ireland opening their U.S. tour in support of their third album. I'd heard U2 on the radio before; I knew "I Will Follow" perfectly well; but I had never really experienced "I Will Follow" until then.

Similarly, I had seen this bird in my field guides; I knew what it looked like perfectly well; but just now I was realizing what it meant to experience a Vermilion Flycatcher.

The shock of orange-red was startling. I knew what I was viewing purely from the speck of color moving across my field of vision. I didn't even notice the silhouette, the shape that told me this was a bird and not a butterfly or a bit of windborne plastic. It was just a thread of red motion. Only when it settled on a low, curved branch was I able to link assemble the red with the head and breast and chocolate-brown back to see it as the phoebe-sized bird it was. I couldn't even think of reaching for my camera.

Luckily, there were more, and as we curved around the far side of the campground, another appeared and let me snap a picture of it:

100_2771.JPGSo intent was I on capturing the flycatcher that I didn't notice several campers staring in the same direction, some with cameras, some with binoculars. It wasn't until one of them asked if I was getting a shot of the coyote that I even noticed it: trotting in broad daylight along the same fence visible behind the flycatcher, here came a young coyote, giving me by far my best look ever at America's most widespread canid:

100_2773.JPGFrom this point on, the day would almost have to be anticlimactic, and sure enough, when we took the road west along the southern border of the park (and the nation, for that matter), we couldn't honestly say were that astonished by our first look at the Rio Grande; Ian was certainly nonplussed:

Dad was a little more chipper:

100_2790.JPGIt's possible that what had pleased Dad was our sight of a soft-shelled turtle laying its eggs on the Mexican side of the river:

100_2789.JPGThen again, he may have been anticipating a much more impressive stretch of the river, one that we only glimpsed: the walls of Santa Elena Canyon, which stand 1500 feet high in some places:

100_2801.JPGBut that was all there was: the road ended at Santa Elena, and with daylight fast disappearing, we would need to get back to our trek. We still had an hour to drive just to get out of the park.

And another hour to reach the nearest town, Marathon.

And another hour after that.


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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on April 14, 2010 3:50 PM.

West of the Pecos, Part III was the previous entry in this blog.

West of the Pecos, Part V is the next entry in this blog.

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